Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
After months of pressure on Kazakhstan’s currency, the central bank has moved to allow the tenge to slide – but avoided the large snap devaluation that doomsayers have long been predicting.
On July 15, the National Bank eased the corridor within which the tenge trades to allow it to drop by 5%, to 198 to the U.S. dollar.
Chief central banker Kayrat Kelimbetov explained, in remarks quoted by Tengri News, that the measure was adopted as the tenge was pushing the upper margin of the corridor of 170-188 tenge to the dollar that the bank had previously committed to enforcing.
There were no immediate signs of panic over the mini-devaluation in Kazakhstan, where the National Bank maintained its exchange rate at 186.8 tenge to the dollar and the currency closed at 187.05 on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on July 15. In exchange offices, the tenge was trading at around 187.5 to the dollar after the central bank’s announcement.
Financial analysts predict the slide will be gradual.
“The scenario of a sharp devaluation is not being considered, and in principle that’s correct,” economist Olzhas Khudaybergenov, a former adviser to Kelimbetov, wrote on his Facebook page.
Khudaybergenov predicted a slow depreciation of 0.5-1 tenge per month, with the currency reaching the upper limit of the new corridor (198 tenge) in about a year.
The calm with which the news was received contrasted with the last devaluation in 2014, when the tenge lost nearly 20% of its value in a single day, sparking public anger that escalated into small-scale unrest in Almaty.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Ufa. Behind the smiles, there were disagreements over the planned accession of India and Pakistan to the group. (photo: president.uz)
Central Asian states are eyeing with concern the planned expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include India and Pakistan, regional analysts say.
With the addition of the two South Asian countries, the membership of the organization -- now China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would increase from six to eight. Four of those are outside Central Asia, and all four of those are nuclear powers with populations and economies that far surpass those of the SCO's four Central Asian members.
While there is little room in the SCO for public dissent, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov issued probably the most surprising statement of the summit, saying that the addition of India and Pakistan "would not only change the political map, but would change the balance of power. This is not a simple issue, and it needs to be discussed."
That went against the conventional wisdom in Ufa, which was that the addition of India and Pakistan would make the SCO stronger and was to be welcomed.
On India and Pakistan, Karimov "said what everyone was thinking, but wouldn't say," said Galiya Ibragimova, a consultant on Central Asia at the Moscow PIR Center on Political Research, in an interview with The Bug Pit.
The concerns about the addition of India and Pakistan are various. In Karimov's case, he is worried that it would shift the group's attention away from Central Asia to South Asia.
Ibragimova pointed out that Karimov has traditionally not wanted to participate in groups where the focus was outside of Central Asia, noting that its decision to pull out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 was justified by the fact that the CSTO was also getting involved in conflicts outside the region, for example Nagorno Karabakh.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Kazakhstan is poised to become part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) nearly two decades after it first applied to join. The Central Asian nation has completed entry talks that have been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country.
Kazakhstan “finalized the negotiations of its WTO membership terms with WTO members at the Working Party meeting on Kazakhstan’s accession on 10 June,” the international trade body said in a statement issued the same day.
Farida Batyrbayeva, spokeswoman for Minister of Economic Integration Zhanar Aytzhanova, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the completion of talks that started back in 1996.
Astana will not release details of the accession package until after a meeting in Geneva on June 22 at which the WTO’s 161 member states will consider formal approval of the draft accession package, Batyrbayeva added.
The WTO announcement came on the same day that the Agriculture Ministry had declined to put a date on Kazakhstan’s long-delayed accession, hinting at behind-the-scenes disagreements over agricultural subsidies.
The size of subsidies Kazakhstan would be permitted to retain for the agricultural sector – which contributes some 5 percent of GDP and employs around a quarter of the workforce – remained “unresolved,” as Kazakhstani negotiators tried to secure “the maximum possible domestic support,” the ministry told Tengri News on June 10, shortly before the WTO issued its statement on the completion of the accession talks.
Evidently, negotiators overcame the stumbling block to conclude the deal, which WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo hailed as a “historic step.”
The accession talks with Kazakhstan were among “the most challenging negotiations” in the WTO’s 20-year history, the statement said.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
Students in Kazakhstan have long dreamed up inventive ways to rig their scores at the make-or-break nationwide university entrance exam each year. But this year is the first that cross-dressing has featured as a cheating tactic.
To help his girlfriend make the grade, student Ayan Zhardemov came up with an elaborate plan to impersonate her and take the exam in her place this week, reports Tengri News.
He no doubt felt he had a good chance of doing well, since he had already passed the exam (known as ENT) three years ago himself, to enter the prestigious Kazakh British Technical University in the commercial capital of Almaty, where he is a chemical engineering student.
Zhardemov went to some pains for his audacious bid, taking a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers from Almaty to southern Kazakhstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, to cheat for his girlfriend.
He donned a long black wig, a gray skirt, a white T-shirt, and white sandals, completing his look with a touch of eye makeup and some pink lipstick.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts did not convince invigilators: They got wise to the con and called the police, who presented Zhardemov with fraud charges that could lead to a short prison term, a fine, or community work.